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Report of Monday Morning Webinar on “India-Australia Relations: Recent Virtual Summit and the Way Ahead”

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  • March 28, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting

    The Monday morning meeting on “India-Australia Relations: Recent Virtual Summit and the Way Forward” was held on 28 March, 2022. Research Fellow at MP-IDSA Col. Ravinder Pal Singh spoke on the subject and elaborated on the outcomes of the summit. The session was chaired by Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh, Centre Coordinator and Senior Research Associate at MP-IDSA. The Director-General Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy and Deputy Director-General Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi shared their views. Associate Fellow Ms. Shruti Pandalai and Research Analyst Mr. Akash Sahu were panelists for the session.

    Executive Summary

    The discussion outlined evolving India-Australia relations, particularly in the fast changing global security environment. Both countries have come closer with bilateral initiatives on a number of areas including defence, technology, and people-to-people ties. Their relations can be further strengthened by addressing elements of distrust, and by aligning more with each other’s worldview. India-Australia relationship is critical for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

    Detailed Report

    Col. Singh began his presentation by providing a background on India-Australia relations, which have broadened after 2014 culminating into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries in June 2021, as compared to very limited economic cooperation and people-to-people exchange before 2000. At the virtual summit, the two leaders reiterated their commitment to shared values of democracy and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Col. Singh highlighted the leaders’ discussion on the current Ukraine crisis, Afghanistan, Myanmar and also the South China Sea. They also reaffirmed ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. Many new developments were announced at the summit like opening up of Australia’s new Consulate-General in Bengaluru, and setting up of a A$ 17.2 million Australia-India Strategic Fund, Australia India Infrastructure Forum, India Australia Centre of Excellence for Critical and Emerging Technology Policy, and Centre for Australia-India Relations. Additionally, General Rawat India-Australia Young Defence Officers’ Exchange Program will be helpful in strengthening military relations between the two nations. Australia has committed A$ 25.2 million for the Australian Space Agency to deepen space cooperation with India, and will support India’s manned mission to space Gaganyaan. A full Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) is expected to be realised by end of the year between the two nations. They have also collaborated in the area of critical minerals with Australia’s Critical Minerals Facilitation Office and India’s Khanij Bidesh Ltd. signing a Memorandum of Understanding.

    Col. Singh underscored that the convergence between New Delhi and Canberra is reflected by frequent Quad summits, pushback against China, 2+2 ministerial dialogue in September 2021, cooperation in ASEAN-led forums like East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum etc. and engagement with emerging minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific such as with Japan, Indonesia and France. Australia has supported India’s membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and both countries have robust cooperation on counterterrorism, apart from a number of military exercises like Malabar and AUSINDEX. India will be participating in Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise later this year. India’s Security and Growth for All (SAGAR), Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), and Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC) underline New Delhi’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, while Australia’s Pacific Step-Up and Indo-Pacific Approach in its 2020 Defence Strategic Update reflect Canberra’s similar outlook.

    There are some divergences in the India-Australia relationship as well. Concerns over duty-free import of coal, increasing trade deficit, and delay in the conclusion of CECA are some current problems. Also, India is not a part of any free trade blocs in the region such as Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) or Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This may affect their trade relationship negatively. However, on the crisis in Ukraine New Delhi and Canberra seem to have a good understanding. Despite India abstaining to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the UN, Australia has expressed that it acknowledges India’s historic relationship with Russia. Col. Singh recommended that Track-2 dialogues may strengthen bilateral relations and MP-IDSA can possibly take a lead on that. Close cooperation in emerging technologies, counterterrorism, and space will be fruitful. The issues with regard to CECA must be resolved with a priority to ensure that both sides are on the same page regarding trade.

    Ambassador Chinoy complimented the speaker for a comprehensive presentation and observed that India-Australia relations have grown tremendously. Earlier the bilateral relations would be ascribed to three Cs namely, Cricket, Curry and Commonwealth, but lately relations have expanded to include much more areas of cooperation, so to say involving more Cs like Connectivity, Communication, Coal and China.  While there has been substantial upgrade in relations from the pre India-US nuclear deal period, when Canberra seemed particularly hostile to India; bilateral relations even today may be seen as a function of India-US relations and India-UK relations. Australia’s unique relationship with China, especially in the context of large bilateral trade in essential minerals, further complicates the equation. Additionally, Australia’s historically close relations with Pakistan from the time that it helped set up Pakistani intelligence apparatus must also not be forgotten completely. Ambassador Chinoy cautioned that Canberra’s involvement with Pakistan in the past does not mean that it shares a worldview with Islamabad. Concluding his comments, he stressed that India and Australia collaboration has immense opportunity in the field of innovation and technology. Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bakshi opined that the pandemic seems to have unified the divergent views on China within Australia. After the pandemic, Canberra has retaliated to China’s economic coercion in a more explicit way, most notably as it constituted the AUKUS with the US and the UK. It may be helpful to examine India’s stakes in the evolving transatlantic relations.

    Ms. Pandalai observed that Australia’s positive reaction to India’s posture on the Ukraine crisis is of significant value to bilateral relations. She asked the speaker about the possibilities of a reciprocal access agreement between India and Australia. Some questions from the audience also focused on whether India and Australia can reach an intelligence sharing arrangement, especially since India has close relations with Russia. Mr. Sahu observed that the presentation has advanced the conversation on India-Australia relations, and asked the speaker for his opinion on whether India and Australia, in their engagement with ASEAN nations, may emerge as collaborators or rivals. He noted that Australia may view itself as closer to the ASEAN nations due to proximity and strategic utility. Col. Singh responded that both countries will pursue their independent policy of engagement with Southeast Asia, and while India’s outreach will have significant elements of cultural and historical linkages, Australia’s approach will be more related to economic and strategic cooperation. He added that India and Australia need not be averse to deeper cooperation on intelligence especially since India has foundational agreements of intelligence sharing and logistics with the US. India’s military relationship with Russia is limited to hardware and shall not discourage Australia from pursuing stronger logistics and intelligence cooperation with India.

    Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh underscored the importance of the India-Australia-Indonesia trilateral given Indonesia’s strategic landscape and leadership within the ASEAN. He also pointed out that India’s cooperation with the pacific islands will help engage them for an inclusive Indo-Pacific agenda of development. He concluded the session by expressing hope for betterment of India-Australia relations that may help regional stability.   

    Prepared by Mr. Akash Sahu, Research Analyst, Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre.